Sunday, December 30, 2007

I Corinthians 15

I Corinthians 15:1-11: Paul’s letter has ranged over a variety of topics, some the Corinthian Christians had asked him about, and some Paul wanted to address given what he was hearing about this church. Now Paul wants to get back to the bedrock of the faith. In one way he has already done that in chapter 13, where he proclaims the primacy of love for the Christian life. But why is love the standard for our lives? What grounds our deepest convictions about life? In this chapter Paul wants to remind the Corinthian Jesus community about the central convictions of the Christian faith.

The good news (gospel – basic Christian message) is one that Paul has proclaimed. The Corinthians have received it, stand in it, are being saved by it – if they hold firmly to it. That is to say, this good news only has the power to save, to make life whole, if we let it do so. There is not here any exclusive claim about Christian faith as the only saving way, only a claim that for Christian faith to be a saving way one must persist in it, and the “saving” is having one’s life formed by the Spirit of Christ in love.

Paul has received and has handed on this tradition: that Christ died, and that his death was meaningful for us as we were trapped in sin. This efficacious dying was “in accordance with the scriptures.” This is not to say that these events are the fulfillment of predictions, rather it is to say that the God known through the Jewish Scriptures has acted in a way consistent with that witness in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Christ died, Christ was buried (his death was a real death, this in contradiction to some who wanted to proclaim that the “God part” of Jesus did not participate in this dying or that the death was not a real death), Christ was raised on the third day “in accordance with the scriptures. It is crucial to see that this earliest summary of Christian faith does not portray the “life and teachings” of Jesus as a great hero to be emulated, but refers to his death (his truly human life) and his resurrection (God’s act, not an “accomplishment” of Jesus). The death and resurrection stand for the Christ event as a whole, the act of God for human salvation. (People’s New Testament Commentary). Clearly the life and teaching of Jesus were important, as four gospels were soon composed to share the life and teaching, but the point here is that for Christian faith Jesus is something more than a “good teacher.” For Christian faith, God was at work in a special way in Jesus, in a unique way. One need not claim that God never acts in any other tradition, but to be a Christian is to claim that God was at work in a special way in Jesus and because of that, life is different, because of that I can be different, because of that I can make a difference in the world.

“Christ died for our sins” is a phrase that can mean different things, as the history of Christian theology demonstrates. Let me reprint some of what I have previously written about the significance of Jesus’ death. The gospels also proclaim that this death was meaningful and significant. In that, they agree with Paul, who is writing before the gospel writers.

All of the gospels report that Jesus was executed by the Roman authorities. “There is no more certain fact in history that the execution of Jesus by the Roman occupational forces in Jerusalem at a Passover festival ca. 30 CE” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 164). It seems almost as sure that certain of the Jewish leaders at the time collaborated in his execution. There had been an uneasy peace established between Rome and Jerusalem, and some had a stake in maintaining that peace. If Jesus was seen as a threat to that, and he certainly seems to have been, then that threat needed to be taken care of. Historically, then, this is why Jesus died. But the Christian church and Christian faith has been almost unanimous in saying that the death of Jesus had a deeper meaning, a theological and religious significance. For Paul, this is a part of the gospel he was taught and has now handed down to the Corinthian Christians. What is this theological/religious significance?

“For all his followers, Jesus’ death was a terrible, unexpected surprise that shattered their hopes” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 164). But the death of Jesus was not the end of the story. They later experienced Jesus as alive and vindicated by God. Their later experience forced them to reevaluate and reinterpret Jesus’ death. Somehow even his death must be significant. Even here God must have been at work in some way. A variety of interpretations of the significance of Jesus death are offered in the New Testament and in the history of Christian theology (theologically these are referred to as “atonement theories”). “The meaning of Jesus’ death was understood in a variety of ways: as an expression of Jesus’/God’s love, as the means of God’s forgiveness, as an atoning sacrifice, as an act of sealing or eschatologically renewing God’s covenant with his people, as redemptive liberation from slavery or ransom from captivity, and in numerous other concepts and images that express the saving act of God in the death of Jesus” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 164). There are those in the Christian community of faith who argue that there is only one appropriate way to understand the theological/religious significance of the death of Jesus. It is probably fair to say that substitutionary atonement is the only way that many or even most contemporary Christians understand faith in the sacrificial and salvific death of Jesus…. It is not just that Jesus offered his life in atonement for sin, but that God demanded it as a condition for our forgiveness. (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week, 101). Crossan and Borg wonder if there are better metaphors for understanding God and thus for understanding the significance of the death of Jesus. Jesus may be said to have sacrificed his life “for his passion, namely, for his advocacy of the kingdom of God” (The Last Week, 154), but this is a different kind of sacrifice than one required by God so that God might forgive. Walter Wink, in his brilliant book on “the son of man” traditions in the Bible and particularly in the New Testament (The Human Being) writes perceptively about the significance of the death of Jesus and about the theories of his death in the history of Christian theology. Of most views of the significance of Jesus’ death, Wink writes, “All these views share the presupposition that God had Jesus killed in order to redeem the world. None of them makes realistic sense of the fact that Jesus was executed by the religious and political establishment.” (105) Wink then rehearses many of the traditional theories and ends up with the following: There is truth in most of these atonement theories…. The point is that no religious experience can be made normative for all people. God reaches out to us in love wherever we are and instigates what leads us to wholeness. Each response if divinely tailored to meet our situations…. The virtue of multiple images of the atonement in the New Testament is that each communicates some aspect of forgiveness and new life, without a single model being elevated as exclusively correct. Atonement theories are need-specific remedies for the spiritual afflictions that assail us. (110-111)

All of this is to say that the bottom line New Testament affirmation is that the death of Jesus, a brutal execution at the hands of legitimate authorities, has significance for our lives and our relationship to God. Just what that significance is is open to a rich variety of interpretations, and that is perhaps as it should be. Rather than argue that there is only one true way to understand the meaning of Jesus death for our lives we would do well to listen to others as they share their understandings. Such conversations have the potential to contribute a great deal to our own formation as disciples of Jesus – this Jesus who trusted God even when he felt God’s absence.

“He was raised on the third day… and appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” This is the earliest account we have of the resurrection in the New Testament. Notice that Paul does not distinguish between his experience of the raised Jesus and the experience of the other apostles. While this telling of the resurrection story is meant to say that it was not merely a subjective experience – Jesus appeared to more than five hundred at once, it tells us little about the exact nature of that experience. Again, allow me to reprint some of what I have already written about the resurrection of Jesus.

The People’s New Testament Commentary notes that “the resurrection of Jesus, i.e., God’s act in raising up Jesus, is central to the Christian faith.” I would agree – but what does that mean? The commentary goes on to say that resurrection is God’s action and that it is “to be distinguished from resuscitation, i.e., the restoration of a dead person to this-worldly life…. Jesus was raised to a new order of being beyond this life.” Resurrection in first century Judaism was a concept that was meant to say something about the ultimate justice of God. In the end, God’s justice would prevail – thus resurrection is an “eschatological” concept and it was sign of the kingdom of God. Another way of saying this is that in the resurrection the Christian community affirms that just as God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world was breaking into the world in Jesus teaching, healing and feeding, so it continues to break into the world through Jesus even though Jesus was crucified. “The resurrection faith of the earliest Christians was expressed and communicated in several forms: songs, creeds, sermons, and stories.” “The Gospel stories of the resurrection are thus not to be harmonized. They differ on such items as who went to the tomb and when, the nature of the resurrection body of Jesus, and the location and chronology of Jesus’ appearances.” To my mind the very variety in these stories indicates that we may be dealing with something more than an easily identifiable historical event.

Here are some comments from John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, from their book, The Last Week. So Easter is utterly central. But what was it?... When we think about Easter, we must consider several foundational questions. What kind of stories are the Easter stories? What kind of language are they told in, and how is that language being used? Are they intended as historical reports and thus to be understood as history remembered (whether correctly or incorrectly)? Or do they use the language of parable and metaphor to express truths that are much more than factual? Or some combination of the two? (190) We are convinced that an emphasis on the historical factuality of the Easter stories, as if they were reporting events that could have been photographed, gets in the way of understanding them…. Seeing the Easter stories as parable does not involve a denial of their factuality. It’s quite happy leaving the question open. What it does insist upon is that the importance of these stories lies in their meanings. (191, 193) Two themes run through these stories that sum up the central meanings of Easter. Jesus lives. He continues to be experienced after his death, though in a radically new way…. God has vindicated Jesus. God has said “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the powers who executed him. In the words of the earliest and most widespread post-Easter affirmation about Jesus in the New Testament, ‘Jesus is Lord.” And if Jesus is Lord, the lords of this world are not. (204, 205, 206)

Marcus Borg, in his own work Jesus builds on some of the themes already presented in his work with Crossan. While Matthew is the first writing we have in the New Testament (and Mark follows Matthew but was written earlier), Paul’s letters are earlier. Paul provides the earliest witness to the resurrection, and in his writings (as we shall see) he bundles together his own experience of the risen Christ with those of others who experienced him. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Paul thought of the appearances of the risen Jesus to others as also visions…. Some Christians are uncomfortable with the thought that the experiences of the risen Jesus were visions…. But not all visions are hallucinations…. Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus changed his life. (277-278) Borg goes on discuss other aspects of the resurrection. But I am aware that a historical question can still be asked: what happened? What I am confident of is this. The followers of Jesus had experiences of him after his death that convinced them that he continued to be a figure of the present. Almost certainly some of these experiences were visions; it would be surprising if there weren’t any…. I think there were nonvisionary experiences of the risen Jesus…. I think his followers felt the continuing presence of Jesus with them, recognized the same Spirit that they had known in him during his historical life continuing to be present, and knew the power they had known in Jesus continuing to operate – the power of healing, the power to change lives, the power to create new forms of community. And I think these kinds of experiences have continued among Christians ever since…. For me, the truth of the claim “God raised Jesus” is grounded in these kind of experiences…. And there is one more thing to say about the experiences that lie at the heart of Easter. They carried with them the conviction that God had vindicated Jesus…. There is a continuity between the post-Easter conviction that God has vindicated Jesus and the message of the pre-Easter Jesus. “Jesus is Lord” is the post-Easter equivalent of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. (287, 288, 289) What did Easter mean to the first followers of Jesus?... First, the followers of Jesus continued to experience him after his death. They continued to know him as a figure of the present, and not simply as a figure from the past…. Second, Easter meant that God had vindicated Jesus…. To put these two meanings as concisely as possible, Easter meant “Jesus lives,” and “Jesus is Lord.” (276)

Finally, before I add a few more words of my own, a few words from George Ricker (What You Don’t Have To Believe To Be A Christian). “Christians do not agree theologically, and they never have. The essence of Christianity is not in the literal truth of the story language of the faith. In all of this I am pleading that Christians not be divided over opinions about which obvious differences exist. Christians are united in the love of God revealed by Jesus, whom we call Christ, and not by our opinions.” (69-70) Ricker imagines what an experience of the risen Christ might have been like for the first disciples of Jesus. He pictures them together sharing a meal and in the midst of that sharing they experience Jesus as present. “By the inspiration of God, the intrusion of the Spirit, they suddenly realize that it was not all over. The Lord was with them…. Jesus is dead. Jesus has a new body. They tried to kill the Christ, the activity of God, they could not. The Christ is raised in a new body.” (72-73)

What am I trying to say with all these extended quotes? Am I trying to convince you that your view of the resurrection of Jesus is wrong if you disagree with Crossan or Borg or Ricker? No. With Ricker, I am asking that we give each other permission to ask questions about this important part of our Christian faith. I am asking that we allow that people of deep and genuine Christian faith can disagree about the exact nature of the experiences of the disciples as they proclaimed that God raised Jesus from the dead. I do think that Borg and Crossan are right when they say that the meaning of the resurrection, whatever its precise nature, is to be found in the statements “Jesus lives” and “Jesus is Lord.”

Since writing those words, I have discovered some others that I also find helpful. John Dominic Crossan in his book on Paul, written with Jonathan Reed. For Crossan and Reed, a basic concept in Paul’s theology is that resurrection transformation is a process, not a moment (In Search of Paul, 173). At the heart of Christian faith “was the proclamation that the general resurrection had already begun when God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead” (173). The general resurrection was seen “as the last act or grand finale by which God finally justifies (that is, makes just) this unjust earth” (174). To claim that God has already begun to transform this earth into a place of divine justice and peace demands that you can show something of that transformative activity here and now. To which Paul would have replied unabashedly: To see God’s transformation in process, come and see how we live (In Search of Paul, 174)

Jesus lives. Jesus is Lord. Because of God’s action in Jesus, lives are being transformed and we can be a part of that transformation. This is the heart of the gospel, the Christian good news. Paul witnessed the risen Christ, and though his experience was as one untimely born, it changed his life dramatically – “by the grace of God I am what I am.” And Paul sought diligently to live out that grace, to live resurrection transformation. He has shared this good news and one result is the very Corinthian Jesus community to which he writes.

I Corinthians 15:12-34: Paul rehearsal of the essentials of the faith are not just a reminder, but are now used to address some concerns present in the life and theology of the Corinthian Jesus community. Apparently some are having difficulty with the idea that Christ was raised from the dead. That seems very contemporary. For the Corinthians, there was little difficulty with the idea of a disembodied soul separating from the body at death – this idea was well ensconced in Greek philosophy. What they struggled with was a more holistic idea of resurrection, something that may have included the body in some way. I am not here retracting what I’ve said before about legitimate room for debate about the resurrection within Christian faith, but the tradition of the faith is that resurrection is not simply the survival past death of a disembodied soul. The resurrection may be something different from the resuscitation of a corpse, but for Christians it does not leave the body behind entirely. This discussion hearkens back to Paul’s earlier discussion about the body as temple of the Holy Spirit (chapter 6).

So for Paul this sense of “bodily” resurrection is important. It is important because of his idea that such resurrection was part of God bringing God’s dream for the world (God’s kingdom) into being. “The term resurrection meant one thing and only one thing at that time – it meant the general bodily resurrection as God finally began the great cleanup of the world’s mess” (Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul, 343). The resurrection has to do with God’s transformative work in the world. For Paul, that began with God raising Jesus as the Christ from the dead, and if this is the beginning of the process, it make no sense to say that the process will not continue. We don’t know exactly what the Corinthians were arguing, but perhaps it was for a more individualistic understanding of resurrection, that their souls would be raised from the dead, as against the broader understanding that God was transforming the world, including their lives. This may have something to do with their lives after death, but more importantly it has to do with God’s transformative work in the world. God’s transformative work is of a piece – it happened in Jesus and it is happening in us. If it is not happening in us, did it really happen with Jesus, and if it didn’t start with Jesus what are we doing talking about it as if it did.

I find the terms of this debate a little muddled, as we don’t know to what Paul is responding. The bottom line for me is the Christian message of faith – God was acting in Christ for the transformation of human life and the world and that action was decisively demonstrated in the resurrection. That transforming action of God is at work in my life, if I open myself to it. I also like The Message rendering of parts of this passage. If there’s no resurrection, there’s no living Christ. And face it – if there’s no resurrection for Christ, everything we’ve told you is smoke and mirrors, and everything you’ve staked your life on is smoke and mirrors. The God who works to transform our lives is the God we know as the one who raised Jesus from the dead.

“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” I think we need to take care in interpreting this for our lives. Is Paul saying that unless there is an eternal life after death, our good living here really is in vain and that we should have been living more selfishly? The Message translates the verse: “If all we get out of Christ is a little inspiration for a few short years, we’re a pretty sorry lot.” Should we read this as saying that we should be willing to suffer and suffer in doing good in this life for a reward later on? I think the better understanding is to hear in Paul’s words a rhetorical flourish. No good deed is a waste. Nothing done in love is in vain. However, Paul is right in saying that goodness does not always “make sense” in the span of our lives. It helps to know that when we love, when we seek peace and justice, when we give of ourselves and our resources for others, when we work to heal others and the earth, we are acting in a way that conforms to God’s dream for the world. We are contributing to the long-term transformative project of God. Paul is “blowing our minds” open to the wider context for our lives, God’s on-going resurrection transformation.

Paul ends his “what if” section. He gets back to the basic message – Christ has been raised from the dead, and in that is the beginning of a new phase of God’s transformative work in the world. Christ’s resurrection is the first fruit – the beginning of the general resurrection, the beginning of the process of God setting the world right. Paul envisions a time when all that is unloving and unjust, all those powers that perpetuate hurt and harm, are overcome. God is about the work of re-creating the world and God won’t stop until there is a new heaven and a new earth. God won’t stop until God is all in all.

Verse 29 is a pure puzzle. We have no idea what Paul was referring to here. Did persons get baptized representing others who had already died? We just don’t know, and this again demonstrates that this is a letter, part of a two-way conversation. We only get to hear half of it.

It is because of the hope Paul has that his work is a part of God’s transformative work in the world that he has “fought with wild animals at Ephesus” – a rhetorical phrase indicating the intensity of some of Paul’s struggles for Christian faith. Paul’s rhetorical flourish continues. If Christian faith doesn’t matter, if God is not at work transforming the world, maybe we would do well to just eat and drink our short lives away. Or if God’s transforming work has noting to do with our bodily existence, maybe it does not matter what we do with our bodies – eat and drink. Some of the Corinthians apparently had been listening to spiritual teachers who encouraged this attitude. Paul ends this section with straightforward advice. “Come to a sober and right mind, and sin no more.” “Think straight. Awaken to the holiness of life.”

I Corinthians 15:35-58: Just when you think Paul has covered all the ground he needs to cover about the resurrection, he anticipates another question – and it is a good one. How are our bodies going to participate in God’s transformative work? The question cannot be answered except metaphorically, and that is important to note. The language of faith is often, of necessity, the language of poetry and not the language of science. Some try and turn metaphor into precise scientific language, and that is not very helpful. Paul uses images from agriculture and astronomy to try and make the point that our future existence will not be as a disembodied spirit, but will involve a transformation of our bodily life. “We are no more capable of imagining what life in God’s new world is like than of projecting the image of a flower by looking at a seed” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Again, Paul is concerned to emphasize a holistic view of the human person – body-soul-mind-spirit all intertwined. At the same time, Paul makes a distinction between the body and mere physical existence (“flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”). Poetic language can contain ambiguity (“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself – I am large, I contain multitudes - - - Walt Whitman)

All of this is a mystery. It seems Paul expected that this final transformation might occur in relatively short order, before too long. The bottom line is that all will be changed. This is God’s victory over even death.

Again, Paul ends with an admonition: Be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. Paul is not a speculative theologian. His theology seems intended to shape the lives of those to whom he is writing. If chapter 15 is sometimes difficult and abstract, it should not be read apart from chapter 13. Love is what Christ was about and his resurrection is a vindication of the way of love. God is transforming the world in love so when we love it is a part of that transformative work in the world. It is never wasted effort. Finally, all our efforts for love will become a part of a transformed world. Keep the faith, keep loving.

I Corinthian 16

I Corinthians 16:1-4: Paul was working to collect money for the Christians in Jerusalem, to help relieve their poverty in a very difficult time there and to show solidarity between the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians. This is a concrete act of love in keeping with chapter 13. Apparently by this time, the Christians were meeting on the first day of the week (Sunday).

I Corinthians 16:5-12: These verses again highlight the personal nature of this communication. Paul shares his travel and ministry plans, and discusses the plans of others.

I Corinthian 16:13-22: Verses 13 and 14 offer some wonderful encouragement and direction – “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” “Keep your eyes open, hold tight to your convictions, give it all you’ve got, be resolute, and love without stopping” (The Message). “Let your every act be an expression of love” (Cotton Patch Version). Paul then suggests some particular people who should be shown love in concrete ways.

Paul apparently dictated his letter, but at this point he takes up the pen himself.

Greeting another with a kiss was a common first century greeting among friends and family. Paul’s words here indicate that in Christ, new friendships and a new family are being formed.

“Our Lord come” was an ancient Christian prayer, a prayer for God’s transformative work to be completed. It is a beautiful and simple prayer for the coming of God’s kingdom, and one that we might pray as we listen to news of war, poverty, violence, crime, assassination, inhumanity and the like. Oh that God’s dream for the world would be fulfilled quickly. We pray for this, but also work for this. Paul ends his letter offering them the grace of Christ, and his own love in Christ.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

I Corinthians 13

I Corinthians 13:1-13: Paul has been telling the Corinthian Christians that they need each other, that they need the variety of gifts of God’s Spirit if they are to be a whole community. But God’s Spirit does more than enhance gifts, it forms lives, it shapes character, and the foremost expression of the shaping/forming work of the Spirit in people’s lives is love. Here Paul offers a beautiful meditation on love as the work of God’s Spirit in human lives. To live in love is the most excellent way. Love is not a “gift of the Spirit” but a fruit of the Spirit that guides how all the Spirit’s gifts are to be used.

This famous passage is not an independent poem idealizing love. It is not a poem at all, but lyrical prose. And it does not understand love as a general ideal, but as the concrete expression of the Christian life in the midst of the conflicts of a first-century church that was fascinated with “spirituality” and “spiritual gifts.” (People's New Testament Commentary) Though read at weddings, and appropriately so, this passage is not a wedding meditation, but describes how Christians are to live together in community.

The passage begins by arguing that without love all the kinds of manifestations of the Spirit and of the Christian life that have so enthralled the Corinthian Christians are all a lot of hot air, handfuls of nothing. Paul is not saying that the Corinthians should not pray “in tongues,” or speak God’s word, or seek spiritual knowledge, or grow their faith, or give generously. He is saying that unless these come from love and increase love, they contribute little to one’s life and to the Christian community.

Paul goes on to describe the kind of love he refers to, using fifteen adjectives – seven positive and eight negative. All fifteen verbs are “action” verbs and could be translated somewhat differently, like this: “love acts with patience and love does deeds of kindness.” One of my favorite translations of verse 7b is “Love is always supportive, loyal, hopeful and trusting” (Contemporary English Version). This love lasts, it is of eternal significance and worth. “Love never dies” (The Message).

Paul asserts that all the spectacular spiritual gifts with which the Corinthians superspiritual Christians are enamored will eventually pass away, but love will remain, along with faith and hope. But among these enduring values, the greatest is love.

In the Buddhist Scriptures there is a relatively brief, and beautifully written, meditation on lovingkindness (metta in Sanskrit). The Metta Sutta proclaims a hope: “May all beings be happy. May they live in safety and joy.” It also invites a commitment. “As a mother watches over he child, willing to risk her own life to protect her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings, suffusing the whole world with unobstructed loving-kindness.” Those in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, both monks and non-monks, recite the Metta Sutta regularly. Other Buddhists do as well. Perhaps like the Buddhists, we would do well to read and recite this passage from our Scriptures (I Corinthians 13), seeking to cultivate a deeper love in our hearts and in our actions. Paul’s deepest hope was that Christian community would be a community of love.

I Corinthians 14

I Corinthians 14:1-25: Paul now returns explicitly to a discussion of spiritual gifts. His short discourse on love was not meant to denigrate the spiritual gifts. “Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts.” Paul is particularly concerned that the gift of prophecy be cultivated, as it benefits the entire community. Some translations render prophecy “preaching” or “proclaiming truth.” I don’t think we should limit our understanding of what this word means by our contemporary notion of “preaching” – which has become an activity reserved primarily for clergy. I would think Paul’s understanding of prophecy would include sharing one’s insights into faith and life in a variety of ways. Such speech, as opposed to “tongues,” which is a kind of ecstatic religious speech used in worship and prayer, prophecy upbuilds, encourages, and consoles. Paul’s consistent concern throughout this letter has been to encourage the Corinthian Christians to engage in practices and behaviors, and to cultivate attitudes that build up the community. Ecstatic speech in prayer is great, but it builds up only one’s own faith. It is like playing unknown notes on an instrument. Paul prefers that notes be played so that others might understand them. There are all kinds of sounds in the world, but we should seek to make sounds that others can understand. Again, while the specific issue here may not be one contemporary Christians relate to, the overall principle remains vitally important – do things that contribute to building up the community of faith. Excel in spiritual gifts “for building up the church.”

Paul is quick to note that he speaks in tongues “more than all of you.” It is not that he lacks this spiritual gift. Rather his primary concern is building up the church community. To focus too much on one’s own spirituality, without concern for the spiritual growth of the community is to be children in thinking, not adults. One must be adult and have a thoughtful faith, and a thoughtful faith thinks about the community and not just about one’s own spiritual growth and development. Again, Paul wishes for all to develop spiritually, but it is precisely when we think beyond ourselves that we are growing in our faith. One group of people about whom the community is to be concerned are those outside of it. They are helped by hearing intelligent speech, and may, when hearing such speech, come to believe that “God is really among you.”

In our day and time, does our insider church talk become something like speaking in tongues so that it is difficult for those on the outside to ever come to the conclusion that “God is really among you.” What can we do to bring people to that place where they might say God is among us?

I Corinthians 14:26-40: When the Corinthians gather together for worship, Paul asks that “all things be done for building up.” He goes on to cite some specific examples of what he thinks will help build up. God is not a God of disorder, but of peace. In context this makes sense, but it can be used inappropriately. God is sometimes the God of creative chaos, too.

Many scholars consider verses 34-36 a later addition to the text. A significant number of manuscripts put these verses at the end of the chapter suggesting that they are a later addition. One problem is that these verses conflict with verses in chapter 11 where women clearly have a role in worship leadership. They seem inconsistent with other writings of Paul. Nevertheless, they are a part of the Scripture and need to be considered in the context of the letter and of the Scriptures as a whole. When put into the context of the letter, we can again say that we simply don’t know the particular issues being addressed, and should not let these two verses dictate the pattern of the church in all places and times, especially when they are contradicted by other passages which give women stronger roles in leadership. The church cannot be unmindful of the wider culture, yet it always walks a fine line between presenting itself in culturally relevant ways while not giving in to parts of the surrounding culture that mitigate its message. In our day and time there seems no good reason for limiting the role of women in Christian leadership, including ordained leadership.

Paul goes on to claim that his writings should be seen as having an authority to them. The chapter ends with yet another admonition. “But all things should be done decently and in good order.” For Paul, part of that good order is following the patterns he provides as an apostle. The Message renders the last line like this: “Be courteous and considerate in everything.” Another good word for us, even if the original context seems light years removed from our lives.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

I Corinthians 11

I Corinthians 11:1-16:
Verse one is a continuation of the last chapter. The division of these letters into chapters and verses, indeed the division of the entire Bible into chapters and verses came later. Paul is inviting the Corinthian Christians to imitate him, especially in the matter he has been discussing, namely, not insisting on one’s “rights” at all cost, but being sensitive to others. Paul saw that in Jesus and he tries to live it in his own life. This may seem egotistical, and perhaps there is some of that present. On the other hand, to tell a group of people, “I think I have this right” puts a lot of pressure on the person making that assertion. I think all spiritual leaders live in the tension between acknowledging their own imperfections (as Paul will do in II Corinthians) while also needing to be a role model for people on the spiritual path. The words “Do as I say, not as I do” don’t wash for spiritual leaders.

From profound insight to difficult material, here Paul speaks about worship and worship leadership and offers words that disturb the contemporary reader. The passage is difficult and leaves the modern reader with many unanswered questions…. Interpreting the text as though it taught the subordination of women is clearly a misreading, since it clashes with Paul’s teaching and practice elsewhere. (People’s New Testament Commentary). Here we go.

Paul commends the Corinthian Christians for maintaining the traditions he has handed down to them. They obviously have not gotten everything right, but like a good teacher Paul commends them for what they are doing right. Then he takes up a new topic of controversy – worship, worship leadership, and the role of men and women is such leadership. Some of his statements are puzzling. Before addressing the issues directly, Paul makes a comment about the relationship between men, women and God. Paul states that Christ is the head of every man, and that man is the head of woman. What can he mean by this? It contradicts what he will say shortly, in verse 12 – that both men and women have their source in God. The language Paul uses is ambiguous, as “head” in Greek can also mean “source.” Paul may be alluding to the creation story in Genesis, but his purpose might only be discovered as we read past verse 3. Paul discourages men praying or prophesying (speaking a word from the Spirit) from covering their heads while doing so. The exact nature of Paul’s objection, what it is he is objecting to, is shrouded in mystery. There is some context for his remark, but we have lost it. For Paul to cover the head is to dishonor the “head,” that is, Christ. Paul is using word play and that does not make this passage any easier work with. In turn, then, Paul objects to women praying or prophesying without covering her head. Again, the context is lost. With the context lost, all we have are some harsh sounding words from Paul. However, part of the context for Paul’s words may be found in the culture of his time. “In some sections of the first-century Mediterranean world certain hairstyles indicated promiscuity, homosexuality, or participation in the frenzied worship of some pagan cults” (People’s New Testament Commentary). To bolster his argument for some differences in how men and women are to lead in worship (though notice both men and women lead in worship!), Paul alludes to the creation story in Genesis. Again, these verses should not be taken out of context or be seen as promoting a distinct hierarchy of men over women. Paul says as much in verses 11-12: “nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman… all things come from God.”

This is Paul’s basic stance. His instructions on worship leadership need to be seen in light of this stance. Could it be that Paul is once again asking the Corinthian Jesus community to be sensitive to the faith of “weaker members”? Could it be they find it disturbing when the usual social order is disrupted too much? Could it be that certain hairstyles communicated something that did not bother some of the community, but others found troublesome? Once again, Paul may be asking for sensitivity to others. To read this passage in a way that is entirely insensitive to the leadership gifts of women, then, is a poor reading of the text, and a direct contradiction of its basic intent.

I Corinthians 11:17-34: Paul began the last section commending the Corinthians, but on the matter he will now discuss, he cannot do so. When they come together for “the Lord’s supper” “it is not for the better but for the worse.” What a difficult word to share. The following information from The People’s New Testament Commentary is very helpful in understanding what is going on here. The congregation met in private homes of those wealthy enough to provide for such meetings. The church service somewhat resembled a dinner party. The dining room held eight or ten persons, the adjoining atrium forty or fifty more. It was absolutely “normal” in such settings that those of higher status received privileged places and better food in the dining room, while slaves and those of lower status ate in the atrium…. In such a context, the central symbol of Christian worship was radically egalitarian – slaves and masters, rich and poor, men and women all ate together as an expression that they were one body in Christ. Their problem was that they were transferring the understanding of social relationships normal in their culture into the life of the church, without realizing that they very event they were celebrating… had made everything new.
As they ate a meal together around the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, some ate to excess, while some went hungry. Some drank until they became intoxicated. Those who had very little would be humiliated in such situations and Paul will have none of this. Paul reminds them of what the Lord’s Supper is all about, and in his words we have words that have been used in Christian worship for centuries. There is no systematic discussion of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament…. The Eucharist is a symbolic act instituted by Jesus that cannot be reduced to one or several “meanings,” but points the participant in several directions. (People’s New Testament Commentary). Paul shares what has been handed down to him in the tradition, and what, he in turn, has handed down.

Paul then writes with deep seriousness about what it means to ignore the egalitarian nature of sharing in the Lord’s Supper, how it should break down social conventions that divide people. His rhetoric is very sharp, but it is rhetoric, not literal speech that Paul uses. Paul encourages self-examination as one shares in the Eucharist. Unfortunately, some read these words and stay away from the Lord’s Supper, worried that they are not worthy. This is not Paul’s intent, nor would he be pleased with such a reaction. What he desires is that the Corinthian Jesus community live up to who it is, live out the true meaning of this celebration. Failure to do so demonstrates a lack of judgment, and Paul wants the community to be discerning. Paul’s words about sickness and death are difficult to interpret. Did he believe that some were sick and dying because the community was not celebrating the Lord’s Supper well? Perhaps. As I read this, one might also read these words as saying that some are sick and dying in the community because of a failure to share adequately with each other, as joint participation in the Lord’s Supper would suggest they should do. Whatever Paul’s precise meaning, he would not want people to avoid the Eucharist, but rather wants them to become who they say they are – caring for each other as parts of the same body of Christ.

I Corinthians 12

I Corinthians 12:1-11:
Apparently, the community has written Paul to ask about spiritual gifts. Christians trust that God’s Spirit works in people’s lives to bring out their best gifts, and even seems to “bestow” certain kinds of gifts on people. The Corinthians seem fascinated by such special gifts, and Paul wants them to be informed about them.

Paul notes that some of the Corinthian Christians had previously worshipped other gods. The reference to this seems out of place, unless you assume that Paul acknowledges that in those other worship centers there were also “spiritual experiences,” and that his concern here is to distinguish Christian spirituality from pagan spirituality. Paul has already indicated that he knows that those Hellenistic gods do not really exist, but he will not deny that the followers of these religions had ecstatic religious experiences, just as some of the Corinthian Christians seem to be having. What place do such experiences occupy in the Christian life of faith? How are we to discern genuine Christian experiences?

Paul’s next line makes a great deal of sense in that context. God’s Spirit at work in people’s lives leads them to acknowledge that “Jesus is Lord.” It would be reading too much into these verses to make them a general statement about the value of other spiritual traditions. Paul is writing to a Christian community helping them figure out what it means to be Christian. To be Christian is to affirm that Jesus is Lord. There is confusion about the meaning of the other part of the verse. Who was saying, “Jesus be cursed”? It may be that some superspiritual Corinthian Christians wanted to dismiss the earthly Jesus as less important than the cosmic Christ (another version of relegating bodily existence to a level of unimportance). It may be that Paul is simply engaging in a rhetorical move, contrasting true Christian confession with its opposite. The real test of the Spirit’s presence is not flashy “spiritual experiences,” but confession in word and deed, that the crucified man of Nazareth is Lord of one’s life and Lord of the church and world (People’s New Testament Commentary).

Paul emphasizes that spiritual gifts help the church affirm that centrality of Jesus. Now he emphasizes that they all come from one God, no matter which gift one may have. Paul uses the word “charisma” to speak of the gifts of the Spirit, and Paul is the only one to use this Greek word. He may have invented it. It is related to the Greek word for grace (“charis”) and thus emphasizes that all these gifts are gifts of God’s grace, and are to be exercised for “the common good.” Paul’s lists vary, but here the gifts (listed with The Message translation in parentheses) are: wisdom (wise counsel), knowledge (clear understanding), faith (simple trust), healing (healing the sick), miracles (miraculous acts), prophecy (proclamation), discernment of spirits (distinguishing between spirits), tongues (tongues), interpretation of tongues (interpretation of tongues). Paul begins and ends his list with gifts that the Corinthians were especially enamored with, that they particularly prized. Yet, throughout Paul emphasizes that all the gifts come from the same Spirit.

I Corinthians 12:12-31:
Paul now introduces a metaphor to emphasize even more strongly that these gifts are for the common good, emphasizes even more strongly the interconnection between the lives of those in the Corinthian Christian community. They are all a part of the same body! All – Jew or Greek, slave or free – were baptized into the body of Christ and given God’s Spirit. They belong together and to speak otherwise is like a foot thinking less of itself because it is not a hand, or an ear denigrating itself because it is not an eye. Paul is at his humorous best here – just take in the picture as you read. A body is not a giant eye, and the parts can’t tell each other they are not needed. When a part of the body hurts, it is the whole body that hurts. Paul turns from the anatomy lesson to the church. YOU are the body of Christ, Paul tells them (and through them he speaks to us). God has given gifts for the benefit of the entire body. Note Paul’s list here is a little different from the previous list.

What are some of your gifts? How are you using them for the work of the body of Christ? If you don’t see yourself as gifted, look again!!!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

I Corinthians 8

I Corinthians 8:1-13

Paul continues to comment on the relation of Christian faith to bodily existence, but the focus changes dramatically. He now writes about food sacrificed to idols. Meat which had been sacrificed to gods other than the God of the Christians might be available for purchase in the market or might be served at a dinner. Practically all meat sold in the marketplace had been ritually slaughtered in connection with some temple. Could Christians continue to purchase and eat such meat at home? Could they continue to attend dinner parties at the homes of their non-Christian friends, where such food would be served? (People’s New Testament Commentary). These questions bring with them questions about fitting in to the surrounding culture, and questions about how people of differing opinions might live together in community.

“All of us possess knowledge” was another one of those slogans used by some in the Corinthian Christian community. These “enlightened” and very spiritual Christians often reveled in their freedom in Christ. The way Paul writes about this attitude, it seems to lack humility, hence Paul’s response that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Paul is not trumpeting an anti-intellectualism, but cautioning against unwarranted pride and encouraging persons to be centered in love. We want to love God and be known by God – that is the best “knowledge.”

Paul acknowledges that other gods and idols really have no existence, at least not an existence equal to the existence of the God of Jesus Christ “from whom are all things and for whom we exist.” At best they represent forces or spirits of some sort, but not equal to God. But not everyone understands this. Some have a weaker conscience, that is, their religious awareness is not deeply developed. Some among the Corinthian Jesus community claim that food is irrelevant (“food will not bring us close to God”). From that they might feel free to eat whatever is sold or offered. Paul concedes this point, but then argues that Christians need to use their freedom wisely, taking care that their actions don’t become a stumbling block to those still new to the faith. Eating at a temple did not entail worshipping of the temple god, rather dining rooms were often attached to temples and they were the sites of social occasions as well as religious ones. Nevertheless, eating there might be misinterpreted, and misinterpreted is such a way that persons might drift away from Christian faith. If that can happen, perhaps one ought to take that into account when one acts.

The issue of meat sacrificed to idols is not a live issue in our day and time. However, issues about our behavior and how it may affect others remain important. Should our lives be completely “other oriented,” so that we never do anything that might “offend” another? I think that is a misreading of this passage. On the other hand, we should not simply be content with claiming our rights to act in this way or that. Rather we need to take seriously how our actions may affect others. The precise way this balance plays itself out in our lives is a matter for deep thought and prayerful discernment. I may think my faith leads me to a certain position on a difficult issue confronting society, say, the war in Iraq. I could choose to say nothing, but I am not sure that is very faithful to the Christian calling. If I come to believe that continuing the war is wrong, it may be important for me to say that, even knowing that it will offend others. However, how I say what I feel I need to say matters. There I can be more or less sensitive to the opinions of others. Taking Paul seriously, I think I need to be sensitive to the differing viewpoints of others.

I Corinthians 9

I Corinthians 9:1-24: Paul has been arguing that Christians ought to take into consideration the impact of their actions on others in the faith community. There are healthy limits to this idea, but in our very individualistic society it is a concept we as Christians need to take more seriously. If church communities were to do that, it might strengthen our ability to share our faith meaningfully with others.

As noted, some Corinthian Christians were enjoying their freedom in Christ tremendously, and were not concerned with the impact their actions might have on others. Paul discusses the meaning of Christian freedom more deeply by referring to his own situation. Paul is an apostle and a free person. He has “seen” Jesus.” Given who he is as an apostle, and the work he has done with the Corinthian church, Paul could assert certain “rights,” among them the right to receive some material support from this faith community. He chooses not to assert his rights, concerned that such action would get in the way of the gospel. He is concerned that if he were to receive some kind of compensation it may be like charging for the gospel, which he feels compelled to preach. People who make their living working in the church have a right to their wages, but all of us who do so need to be careful. We all know situations where the material lifestyle of clergy became a hindrance to ministry.

Paul, though free, has made himself a “slave” so that more people might become persons of Christian faith. Again, Paul is using highly rhetorical language, and there are limits to how much one can give of oneself and remain healthy enough to give into the future. Nevertheless, there is a lesson to be learned here about setting aside one’s “rights,” about reaching out to others in ways that are meaningful to those others – the “religious, the nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized” (Peterson, The Message). All this requires healthy self-discipline, and Paul encourages this, using metaphors from Greek athletic games. Punishing the body and enslaving it are metaphors for such athletic training.

I Corinthians 10

I Corinthians 10:1-22: “The subject continues to be the same: to what extent Christians can participate in pagan culture, especially attendance at festive meals in pagan temples” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Paul has argued that such behavior needs to take into account the impact on others in the faith community. In this section, he is concerned that such behavior might have a negative affect on the person engaged in it. To make his point, he uses the Exodus story as a metaphor.

In the Exodus, all who participated ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink, and all were “baptized,” as it were. Many, however, seem to have lost their way on the journey. Paul likens their temptations to the experiences of the Corinthian Christians already discussed in the letter. Guard against sexual immorality. We must not turn our religion into a circus. We must be careful not to stir up discontent. (The Message) “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” Paul is not trying to make this group of disciples constantly anxious, only trying to remind them that all of life provides opportunity for learning and for growth. When we think we have nothing left to learn, then we have more to learn than we even imagined. “Cultivate God-confidence” (The Message).

From caution against becoming spiritually blinded by one’s own sense of spirituality, Paul returns to the topic of what it means to live in community. We participate together in Christ, so we need to be considerate of others. He also uses this image to suggest that if Christian rituals involve a deep participation in Christ, what might be involved if people find themselves at temple rituals? Paul encourages caution, even if these other gods are no gods.

I Corinthians 10:23-32: Verse 23 is reminiscent of 6:12, but notice a subtle shift. In chapter 6, the second “all things are lawful” is followed by “but I will not be dominated by anything.” Here it is followed by “but not all things build up.” In deciding about our actions, we take into account not only their impact on our own lives, but also on the lives of others. Often what might be detrimental to others turns out to damage us as well. Paul offers some very specific guidance in these verses. Buy what you like at the meat market. Eat what is set before you, unless you are told that the meat has been sacrificed to idols. In that case, for the sake of others refrain. Such food still belongs to God (“the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s), but, again, we need to be concerned for the well-being of others. “We want to live well, but our foremost efforts should be to help others live well” (The Message).

On the other hand, there are limits to always watching out for what others think, and Paul notes that here as well. He encourages the Corinthian Christians to “do everything for the glory of God.” Yet he quickly reminds them again to “give no offense.” What a fascinating balance we are asked to strike. What an adventure we are asked to live.

Friday, December 21, 2007

I Corinthians 7

I Corinthians 7:1-16: Paul ended chapter 6 with the encouragement to “glorify God in your body.” He now begins to address issues brought to him by the Corinthian Christian community, beginning with issues that have to do with the body and with sexuality. Discussions of appropriate sexual expression for Christians have apparently been around a long time, as we have already seen in this letter. As we read Paul’s words it is helpful to remember that “what Paul writes is not an essay on marriage but part of a letter conditioned by one particular situation” (People’s New Testament Commentary).

Regarding the earlier situation of the man who had taken up with the widow of his father, one group of Corinthian Christians seemed to argue that they were not bound by some traditional notions of appropriate sexuality. Paul disagreed with them – Christian freedom did not mean the freedom to do anything one liked. This chapter begins with the polar opposite. Some others in the Corinthian Jesus community have as a motto – “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” “Touch” here has distinctly sexual meaning – it is being used euphemistically. While this point of view seems to be the opposite of that discussed in chapter 5, there is a common root. For many in the Greco-Roman world, body and spirit were understood to be very distinct. For Paul, body and spirit are intertwined, interconnected. For those who view the body and spirit as distinct and separable, two responses are common: (1) it doesn’t matter what I do with my body because it is separate from my spirit – the body is inconsequential because it is distinct and separable from spirit, or (2) being spiritual means denigrating or denying my body and the pleasures of bodily existence – the body is a distraction at best and evil at worst because it is distinct and separable from the spirit. Paul has already rejected #1. Here he will also reject #2, though not always, perhaps, in the most positive way. The history of the Church indicates that #2 remains a real temptation for Christians – a denigration of bodily existence, seeing the body as a distraction at best and evil at worst. When that happens, the Church is not being very faithful to its own best theological insights.

The superspiritual argue against sexual contact even among married couples. That is the context in these verses. Paul argues that married couples should have a normal sex life, that each should give to the other their conjugal rights. Christian faith can be very earthy and it seems to reach into every area of our lives. Notice the equality presupposed in verses 3-4. Now one primary reason Paul gives for married couples having a normal sexual life is that otherwise they may be tempted toward “sexual immorality.” Paul seems to undercut his own basic point about glorifying God with our bodies, though realistically, he may have something of a point. Paul does allow that there may be times when couples jointly decide to abstain from sex, but they should come back together again. Paul is not commanding or advising this, only conceding that there may be certain circumstance where sexual abstinence within marriage has some spiritual benefit – but not as a permanent condition. Paul does hint that an unmarried celibate life has advantages (“I wish all were as I myself am”), but he goes on to say that both celibacy in singleness and a joyful and robust married life are gifts from God. Paul, in places, comes close to saying that the body is a distraction to the spiritual life, but I would argue when he does so, he undercuts his own best insights.

Paul comes close to making that mistake in the following verses (8-9). Paul encourages the widows and widowers (probably the meaning of “unmarried” in this verse) to stay unmarried, unless self-control becomes an issue then “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” Not the most ringing endorsement of marriage, but one should not push Paul’s point too far. It is some of the Corinthian superspiritualists that argue that marriage and a normal sex life within it hamper spiritual development. Paul is saying that marriage can be an important part of the life of a Christian disciple, and if you are inclined to marry do so with joy. It is interesting to see how Paul in places evokes the name of Jesus in giving advice and in other places says this is just his best judgment. Such statements seem to undercut some of the charged language about the Bible being the inerrant word of God. Inspired, yes, inerrant, that’s questionable.

Paul discourages divorce. Is this an absolute prohibition? To read this passage in that way does not do it justice in its context. Verse 15 acknowledges a situation in which divorce might indeed be an option. Paul, however, encourages those married to “unbelievers” to stay in those relationships. God has called us to peace.

I Corinthians 7:17-24:
Whether married or not Paul invites all to “lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God has called you.” Paul says, “This is my rule in all the churches.” Paul goes on to illustrate his point that Christians, after becoming Christians, can retain some of their previous lives – married or not, circumcised or not, slave or free. Paul is not endorsing slavery here. Paul’s point is that God calls each of us in different circumstances, and while God wants to transform our lives, not everything about them must change. Sometimes circumstances change and sometimes they do not, but the opportunity to live as a person of God is always a possibility.

I Corinthians 7:25-40: Paul now addresses the topic of the unmarried (virgins). Here again, he offers opinion. With a crisis impending, though what Paul has in mind here is left vague, he may have had a sense of an immanent return of Christ. He may also have been talking about something more mundane. The married should stay married and the unmarried should stay unmarried – “but if you marry, you do not sin.” That last line seems absurd to most of us, but remember the Corinthian church had those who would have seen sin in marriage.

Paul’s sense of imminent crisis pervades some of the verses. Paul is not saying that we should not marry, or that mourning, rejoicing, buying are evil. He is trying to say that we need to keep our perspective on all of this. We need to remember that “the present form of this world is passing away.” This reminds me a little bit of the Buddhist idea of the impermanence of life. Things change and pass away. Keep things in perspective. Live by your values.

Marriage can bring with it a whole set of “anxieties,” and Paul is concerned about these. Marriage is not second rate spirituality. Singleness can offer persons the opportunity to focus more on God’s work in the world without having to worry about how God’s work in the world might involve a family. Paul’s big concern is to promote good order and deep devotion to Jesus. Marriage or singleness both can be ordered well and are compatible with a deep devotion to Jesus. If you marry, great; if you don’t – great (v. 38).

Christian faith has implications for all of our lives, for how we express our sexuality, for the intimate relationship of marriage. No question seems out of bounds to Paul. No area of life is left untouched by Christian faith.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

I Corinthians 5

I Corinthians 5:1-8: In these past couple chapters, Paul has been dealing with divisiveness based on spiritual arrogance. “The main trouble in Corinth seems to have been a form of superspirituality” (Gary Wills, What Paul Meant, 114). Various factions within the Christian community in Corinth have been claiming spiritual superiority based on the person they received their spiritual teaching from and on the kind of spiritual gifts they experienced. Paul suggests that there may be varying levels of spiritual understanding, but his more basic point has been that by their very behavior, these divisive persons are demonstrating that they lack spiritual depth. Paul retorts that he then needs to go back to square one with them, rather than move on to deeper truths. As we left the last chapter, Paul was wondering what sort of tone he would need to take with them when next he visited. In the coming chapter, including this one, Paul begins to address other issues of concern in the community.

Paul takes up as an issue something he has heard reported, not something the Corinthians had written to him about, a situation of sexual immorality. Were they o.k. with the situation? But what is the situation? Apparently a man, a member of the Christian community is living with his father’s wife. The phrase “living with” implies a long-term sexual relationship. “Both the Old Testament and Gentile law forbade such unions as a violation of community standards” (People’s New Testament Commentary) - thus Paul’s remark that such behavior is not acceptable even in non-Jewish contexts (“among pagans”). Jerry Springer visits Corinth! Apparently the community is o.k. with what is happening – “and you are arrogant!” Again, arrogance rears its ugly head in this community. Paul is as disappointed in the community as in the man who is acting this way. He recommends that the man be removed from the community, let go to do his own things, and Paul has some confidence that if this happens the person will understand the error of his ways. This passage my be most instructive for us in helping us ask tough questions. What behaviors would we not tolerate in our church communities? What behaviors might lead to a letting go of a person? If there are those who might harm others, we might put limits on their participation in our community life. These are the issues raised by this passage, more than the specific violation of sexual morality that is the presenting issue.

Again, Paul focuses on the issue of arrogance, here an arrogance that has allowed inappropriate behavior to go unchallenged. Paul introduces a new metaphor to his discussion, yeast in a loaf. The background for this metaphor is the exodus story where the exodus is celebrated with unleavened bread. The church is to clean out its old yeast so that it can truly be unleavened bread. He then suggests a more precise symbolism – yeast is evil and malice, and needs to be gone so that the community might be the unleavened bread of “sincerity and truth.”

I Corinthians 5:9-13: Apparently Paul had written to the Corinthians before about sexual morality. In that letter, which we do not have, Paul seems to have cautioned them about associating with sexually immoral persons. Some interpreted him to mean avoiding any persons who are immoral, but Paul rightly points out that we cannot simply talk to each other. We need to be in the world to witness to our faith, and in the world we will encounter “immoral persons.” While we will know persons who are not a part of the Christian community, and some of them may engage in “immoral behavior,” we still need to stay involved with their lives. Once someone becomes a part of the community, however, one needs to live a life that fits with the faith. Failure to do so means the community may need to act for its own good. Paul is not interested in “judging” the world, but in reaching out to it. Having someone in the church engaging in flagrantly immoral behavior makes reaching out to others more difficult, hence, the community may need to act to protect itself. Again, how such thinking may be applied in our day and time needs careful consideration. Some Christian traditions have a history of expelling persons quickly and judgmentally. Others never deal with problematic behavior at all. Perhaps it is less a matter in our own time of “expelling” any one than of maintaining appropriate standards and helping people meet those standards. When they don’t, forgiveness is always the first option. In some cases, however, a church may need to protect itself from behavior that is destructive of the community, and the kind of behavior I have in mind here is maliciousness, spreading vicious rumors, behavior that takes undue advantage of vulnerable church members. Sometimes we may need to put boundaries around how certain people participate in our common life. Again, great care needs to be taken in any such cases.

I Corinthians 6

I Corinthians 6:1-11: Another problematic divide in the Corinthian Jesus community was a divide between those who were powerful and had resources at their disposal, and those who were not. “Most of the problems at Corinth stem… from powerful patrons within the assembly, important people both very good for help, support, and protection, but also very bad for unity, equality, and commonality” (Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul, 338). Is this the same group that Wills refers to as “superspiritual”? It may well be, or, at the very least, the seems to be a large overlap between the well-to-do and the superspiritual, and the divisiveness that is created is a real problem. Here the issue is that some members of the Jesus community are taking others members to court in the Roman court system. Paul is incredulous. His impatient, heavy-handed, sarcastic tone reflects his frustration that they have little understanding of who they are as baptized members of the body of Christ who participate in the life of the Spirit. The social situation also plays a role. The disputes in court were about property, which reflects an upper-class activity. The wealthier members of the congregation were using the court system as an instrument of injustice against the poorer members. (People’s New Testament Commentary).

Paul’s language in the first part of this chapter is meant simply to distinguish those in the church from those outside, not to make a moral comment about those outside (“unrighteous”). Paul believes that in our faith we have an insight into the truth about the world, a truth that will “judge” the world (though there is a vagueness about what precisely this means). Can’t they find people wise enough in the congregation to mediate disputes?

“In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.” When the community is bringing things to the Roman court it communicates something about the faith. If people of faith are in court just like everyone else, what difference does this Jesus faith make? If there is nothing different about our lives as Christians, why would someone want to be a Christian? Isn’t it better, sometimes, to let little things go? In our day and time, there are instances when recourse to legal authorities may be warranted – when we need to protect the vulnerable, when we need to prevent harm from spreading. Paul’s words are not meant as general advice for all time. His basic point is that life in Christian community should be different from life in the surrounding culture.

Verses 9-10 have often been controversial, but again, Paul’s basic point is that we should be distinct from the world around us in certain ways. Paul’s list fit his day and time. We might state things somewhat differently. Paul here expands his vice list of 5:10 from six to ten items, but in neither place is his purpose to draw up a list of those who will enter the kingdom and those who will not…. Paul’s point is to illustrate the new reality to which the Corinthians now belong. This list illustrates the way some of them were, but Paul’s point is they no longer belong to the world where these kinds of sins prevail. The problem is that they are living as though they were still resident members of the old world, taking each other to court over property matters. It is ironic that much recent discussion of this text focuses on items in Paul’s illustrative list (especially the reference to homosexual acts) and ignores his main point. (People’s New Testament Commentary).

Well, even if the “list” is not the main point, it seems a point of debate, so something needs to be said about it. “Fornication” which tops the list is the same word uses at the beginning of chapter 5 (porneia – yes, the root of our word for “pornography”) which was there translated as “sexual immorality.” This “is a broad catchall term for Paul” (New Interpreters Study Bible). Idolatry and adultery are fairly straightforward in definition. “Male prostitutes” is a word literally meaning “soft.” In the King James Version it is translated “effeminate.” The word translated “sodomites” is a rare word in Greek, and, in fact, the usage here is the earliest recorded usage of the word in Greek. William Placher, in Jesus the Savior contends that neither of these words “exactly means ‘homosexual’ in our usual modern sense” (98). Placher goes on to write about some of what we know about Greco-Roman sexual practices as a context for trying to understand Paul more adequately. He concludes with these words. In the Hellenistic world, Paul witnessed (how closely and how often we have no idea) particular culturally shaped forms of homosexual activity…. Paul condemned what he saw, and we encounter that condemnation in the pages of the Bible…. On the other hand, we are not sure why Paul condemned what he saw. Would he have felt differently if everyone involved had been an adult? If the relation would have been understood as between equals? If “homosexuality had defined some people throughout their lives, rather than being part of the lives of lots of people who also had other forms of sex?... Would very different forms of homosexual activity have seemed wrong in the same way to Paul? But we cannot summon him up from the dead, introduce him to contemporary forms of homosexuality, and find out what he would have thought of them. (100)

The church spends a lot of time these days debating these issues. Funny, we don’t spend a whole lot of time asking what Paul may have meant by “greedy.” Does a 30% interest rate on a credit card mean the credit card company is greedy? Again, Paul’s main point is that Christians are to live counter-culturally. They have been “washed, sanctified, justified” in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of God. We have been, too. What parts of our culture need to be countered in the way we live?

I Corinthians 6:12-20: In these verses, Paul is making a deep connection between the spiritual life and bodily existence. Our bodies are “members of Christ” and “a temple of the Holy Spirit within you.” We are to “glorify God” in our bodies. Eugene Peterson renders this final verse as follows: So let people see God in and through your body (The Message). Frederick Buechner writes: “One of the blunders religious people are particularly fond of making is the attempt to be more spiritual than God.” (Wishful Thinking). Our bodies matter. Except for the Jewish community, the world into which Christianity was born made little connection between religious faith and sexual ethics. Sex prior to and outside marriage was generally accepted as normal (for males) and was not considered a religious or moral issue. The Corinthian Christians, most of whom had been Gentiles before their conversion, brought these attitudes with them into church. (People’s New Testament Commentary).

Paul is probably responding to a phrase popular among some Corinthian Christians as he begins this section – “all things are lawful for me.” The superspiritual were reveling in their freedom in Christ. Yes, Paul says, that may be true, but actions have consequences. Certain behaviors water down our witness (taking people to court), certain actions damage the community, certain behaviors may enslave you (how one uses one’s body).

On Sunday, I am preaching a sermon on this text. It fits nicely with Advent – as we wait to celebrate the incarnation of God in Jesus as the Christ. Our bodily lives matter. How do we glorify God in our bodies today? I suggest that we look at caring for ourselves physically as a spiritual discipline. Our care for the body also means we care for the physical well-being of others and for the well-being of our earth.

Friday, December 14, 2007

I Corinthians 2

I Corinthians 2:1-5: Paul has been contrasting the wisdom of God, found in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus, with the wisdom of the world. In these verses, Paul continues to contrast “wisdoms,” but with a little different twist. Paul was an educated person who could write thoughtful and profound letters and he is not extolling an anti-intellectualism here. He is simply saying that in his preaching and teaching as he founded this church, he was not relying on his own abilities to be intellectually brilliant, though he may have been at times, but rather trying to be a person through whom others came to know the power of God. Paul no doubt appealed to some sense of common intelligibility in his preaching, but he was more concerned to show how the way of Jesus was different from the way of success as understood in the surrounding culture. Paul’s task is our task, relating the gospel intelligibly in our day and time, while not being so caught up in making our speech so plausible that the power of God is lost. The way of Jesus may resonate with deep hopes in our culture, but it is a way different from much of what our culture teaches us.

I Corinthians 2:6-16: While Paul may not have tried to be “brilliant,” here he claims that his teaching and preaching contained wisdom. Did he “speak wisdom” to those who were mature, or is it that those who were mature understood that Paul was speaking wisdom all along? Paul may be suggesting that within the gospel itself are degrees of wisdom, and only some are ready to receive certain aspects of this wisdom – only the mature. If so, there is an analogy here with the Buddhist idea of skillful means - that the Buddha taught people according to their ability to receive the teaching. Paul’s most important point is that the wisdom of faith remains distinct from the “wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age.” Does Paul have in mind what passed for wisdom in imperial Rome? Again, in contrast to such wisdom, Christians have a wisdom from the Spirit, who “searches everything, even the depths of God.” In wisdom Paul seeks to interpret spiritual things “to those who are spiritual.” For Paul, this includes all who have received God’s Spirit. “We have the mind of Christ.”

In these verses, Paul continually and consistently contrasts Christian, spiritual wisdom with the wisdom of this age and its rulers. Anti-intellectualism is not his point. Paul cautions us against getting too caught up in the thinking of our age. The way of Jesus, the way of God, the way of life is often different from conventional wisdom. What parts of what pass for conventional wisdom might we need to question in our own lives and in our own society? Furthermore, while intellectual gifts can be gifts of God and God’s Spirit, sometimes our intellectual sophistication gets in the way. There is such a thing as paralysis by analysis – refusal or inability to act because we see the complexity of the world. We should see the world in its marvelous complexity, and act for justice and peace and reconciliation and love nevertheless.

I Corinthians 3

I Corinthians 3:1-23: In the beginning of this chapter, Paul does seem to indicate that he needed to offer his teaching at different levels. While the Corinthian Jesus community may have the mind of Christ, apparently, they also struggle with being “of the flesh.” He is not denigrating their bodily existence, but telling them that their thinking is still too influenced by what the culture considers wise. Paul is not focusing on a contrast between spiritual infants and spiritual elites, but encouraging the Corinthians to be more who they already are in Christ, and let go of what they used to consider wisdom. “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?” Petty jealousy and quarreling about whose teacher was the best are indications that they are not living out the transformed life they have begun in Christ. I have often argued that in our day and time our inability to manage conflict any better than the world around us weakens our witness as the church. Paul reminds the church that he and Apollos, and other teachers all worked to bring them closer to God, and that it is the work of God in their lives that matters, not who their teacher was.

Paul shifts from an agricultural image to a construction image. Each teacher in the church has a part of the job of helping build up the body of Christ – one may lay the foundation, and another build upon it. While each builder must choose carefully how to build, it is the building up that matters. Paul extends the image by imagining that different materials may be used in the work, and in the end the work will be tested. Paul utilizes a familiar image for testing – fire. Fire purifies metals, harden pottery, but burns away wood and straw. We seek to use the best human materials to build our lives in Christ. What sort of materials would you consider good materials for building a Christian life? Could this refer to certain virtues and practices? Christian teachers and leaders are to use the best materials possible to build up the life of the community. Paul’s use of this building image implies that both the teacher and the community will be tested.

Paul continues with the building image, but takes it in a slightly different direction. Here he explicitly tells the community that it is God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells within them. He warns people against messing with the temple – jealousy and quarreling mess with the temple. Paul moves again to a warning about living as if the wisdom of this world is really wise. In Christ, they have life. They belong to Christ and to God – just as we do. We, too, are asked to build the Christian community.

I Corinthians 4

I Corinthians 4:1-13: If the Corinthian Christians have been fighting about their teachers, creating divisions and problems, Paul wants to again remind them about who their teachers really are, how they really function. Christian teachers are not out to gain followers, like perhaps some of the Greek and Roman philosophers and teachers might. They are “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” What an intriguing description of the work of ministry – and it is work that belongs to both ordained clergy and those not ordained.

Paul sees himself as a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God. It does not really matter to him if some Corinthian Christians do not think he is as eloquent and brilliant as some of the other teachers in the faith they have knows. He is trustworthy in carrying out his ministry. While Paul has a clear conscience, he holds out the possibility that there may be things in his life he could do better. This would hold true for Apollos and other teachers as well.

Given this understanding of the role of their teachers, the Corinthian Christians should avoid being puffed up. They have all received the gift of God’s grace and Spirit, and thus already have all they could want. They are rich in Christ. Or is Paul being sarcastic here? Could he be noting with sarcasm and irony – you are the rich ones, the wise ones, virtual kings, but we, your teachers about who you brag so much are hungry, poorly clothed, weak from work, homeless. Maybe there is a little of both. Maybe Paul is trying to remind them that they are rich in important ways, and therefore they should let go of seeing their importance by becoming jealous and quarrelsome.

I Corinthians 4:14-21: Paul’s cautionary words are intended to teach in hopes that the Christians will learn. He is not trying to shame them. He now assumes the role of caring father for his children in the faith. He wants them to imitate his Christian practice. In the world of the time, children learned by following the model of their parents. He will see how genuinely “powerful” some of these arrogant people are. The kingdom of God is not about talk, but about the power to transform, and be transformed.

The Corinthian Christians are in need of guidance. Paul offers them two options – he can come with a stick or with “love in a spirit of gentleness?” If they respond to this letter, he will come with love, but if they continue to struggle with factionalism, jealousy and quarreling, Paul may feel he needs to be firm (come with a stick). In our own lives, we may need something like the firmness of a stick sometimes, and at other times love in a spirit of gentleness. What do you tend to respond to? What do you need right now in your life?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


If Paul’s letter to the Roman Christian community was his longest, his letters to the Corinthian Jesus community/Christian community are the most extensive when put together. And to think these are not all the letters he wrote them (see 5:9, for instance). These letters contain some of Paul’s most moving writing, as well as some of his most controversial writing. A little introduction to Corinth and Paul’s relationship with the church there seems in order.

According to Acts, the church at Corinth was founded by Paul, Silas and Timothy, sometime in about 50 CE. Paul stayed in Corinth for about a year and a half. After founding the church, he continued to correspond with it. This letter was probably written from Ephesus in the winter of 53-54 CE. No one seriously doubts that this is an authentic letter of Paul’s.

The city in which Paul founded this church was a city of great status. It was the capital of the Roman province of Achaia, and a center of commerce and the arts. The ancient Greek city of Corinth had been destroyed by the Romans in 146 BCE, but it was rebuilt under Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. Caesar populated the city with Roman military veterans and freed slaves. The city had a reputation as a center of sexual immorality, but it was probably no better or worse than many other Roman cities. It was also a place where a variety of Roman gods were worshipped. “Corinth developed a reputation for possessing wealth without culture and for abusing its poor” (New Interpreters Study Bible).

The church that Paul founded was predominantly Gentile. Paul had begun his work in Corinth in the synagogue, but when his message was not well-received there, he turned to the Gentiles. The recipients of the letters “had for the most part been adherents of pagan religions who did not entirely leave their previous understandings of religion and ethics behind when they were baptized” (People’s New Testament Commentary). “The congregation at Corinth was a cross section of the socio-economic and religious makeup of the city – indeed, of much of the Greco-Roman world, in which a few wealthy people sat atop the social pyramid, most were poor, and there was no middle class as we know it” (New Interpreters Study Bible).

As already mentioned, Paul wrote other letters to the Corinthians than those we have in our New Testament. This letter is not really the first (see 5:9). It is written in response to questions the community has asked and to reports Paul has received about the church. There are no deep tensions between Jews and Gentiles in this community, but there are divisions within it that need addressing. Other teachers have come after Paul, and people seem to be dividing themselves according to who passed on the Christian faith to them. A host of more concrete and practical issues are addressed, but these also give Paul the occasion to write more broadly about significant issues. Some see this letter as one of the best views we have into the life of a first century church. If that is the case, those who wish to go back to the first century church had better be careful what they ask for!

I Corinthians 1

I Corinthians 1:1-9: Paul begins his letter in typical Roman fashion. He identifies himself as an apostle, not of his own initiative, but by the will of God. He is writing to the church of God in Corinth. People who belong to the church are “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” All Paul is saying here is that those who belong to the church are, indeed, people of God, called to be about God’s work in the world, called to be a community that reflects God’s intention for the human community. But the Corinthian Christians are not alone, they are a part of a larger movement of all those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Again, to call anyone other than the emperor or a high public official “Lord” would have had a subversive quality to it. Paul begins by wishing these people “grace and peace.”

These people have been given grace by God in Christ. They have been enriched in all kinds of ways and lack no spiritual gift. This God who has given them grace will keep them strong in that grace “to the end.”

Paul writes a lavish and generous description of this church. As we shall see soon enough, this place has problems. Can we see our own lives as being filled with the grace of God and the gifts of God’s Spirit? Can we describe our own church community in such terms? While we may want to change the language some, we, too are persons to whom God’s grace has been given. We, too, have been given gifts of the Spirit, as individuals and in community. Perhaps Paul reminds them of this because he is convinced that they will need to remember who they really are if they are to address their problems creatively and constructively.

I Corinthians 1:10-17: It doesn’t take long for Paul to begin addressing issues and problems. His first appeal is that the church be in agreement and that there be no divisions among them. Is Paul suggesting that we have to agree on everything? I don’t think so. The image suggested by the Greek language is that of mending a net, restoring it to its original unity. We need not be united in all our theology to share in deep community in Jesus Christ. It is amazing how the human tendency to engage in oneupsmanship finds its way into the church – here in the form of claiming that the one who taught you the Christian faith is better than others who have taught the Christian faith. It is not the eloquent wisdom of the teachers of the faith that matters, but the message about Christ that is powerful.

I Corinthians 1:18-31
: The message about the cross can seem like sheer foolishness. Two thousand years of usage as a positive religious symbol, as decoration, and as jewelry have dulled the impact of the words “cross” and “crucify.” The Romans used crucifixion to make an example of those who disturbed the good life of the Roman peace… as a public display of how important they considered “law and order.” Roman citizens who committed crimes were not crucified. The punishment was reserved for revolutionaries, terrorists, the worst criminals, and slaves. “Cross” has the connotations of ugliness, contempt, weakness, loser, criminal, slave, unpatriotic lowlife. (People’s New Testament Commentary). How can your teacher of wisdom, how can one who teaches you about God, embodies God, be such a loser, a crucified criminal in some backwater of the empire? Absurd, foolish, at least to those who are “perishing,” and by that Paul does not necessarily mean those destined for some kind of eternal punishment. Those who are perishing are those who just don’t know how God’s love and power really work so they can’t avail themselves of it fully and their lives suffer for it – even if some of their lives may seem o.k. on the outside. For some Jews, the fact that Jesus was crucified was a stumbling block. Surely God would not have allowed such a thing to happen to a messianic person. For some Gentiles, that fact that Jesus was crucified meant that he stood outside the usual ways of wisdom and power. Yet the way of Jesus is the way of life, the way of God’s “salvation.” For those in the Corinthian Christian community, however, this very foolishness has made all the difference in their lives. In this crucified Christ they have experienced the wisdom and power of God. The term Paul uses for “stumbling block” is the root of our word “scandal.” There is something scandalous in God’s love as seen in Jesus Christ. Part of that scandal is that those who would have been seen as on the lower rungs of society are a part of the people of God in Corinth.

In many ways these verses are difficult because in the United States being Christian and being respectable have often been synonymous. That’s not all bad, but have we lost something in wanting to maintain both our respectability and our faith? Are there times when we, too, need to be counter-cultural? Are there times when we need to risk looking foolish in order to live our faith? Questioning the god of national security may seem foolish, but perhaps we should question anyway. Questioning the equation of success with material possessions may seem foolish, but perhaps we should question anyway. Questioning the need for economic growth regardless of environmental cost may seem foolish, but perhaps we should question anyway. Questioning the ever expanding use of sports metaphors of winning and losing into more areas of our lives – politics, relationships, may seem foolish, but perhaps we should question anyway. In none of these cases am I dismissing legitimate concerns for national security, a certain level of material well-being, or economic growth. Nor am I rejecting sports as one legitimate form of entertainment. I am questioning our faithful allegiance to whatever happens under these banners. I think Paul questioned such things, in his own way, in his own day and time.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Romans 15

Romans 15:1-13: Those who cannot in good conscience eat certain foods, or who wish to observe certain ritually pure days, should follow through, for to act against conscience and against one’s understanding of faith is sin according to Paul (14:23). But for those who don’t feel bound to former rules about food or drink or days, one should still be careful to monitor the effects of one’s behavior on others. While one should not abandon one’s own happiness completely, neither should one’s short-term pleasure be the final arbiter of one’s actions. We need to consider what might build up our neighbor as well as our own good. We have our example in Christ. Here Paul uses a scripture to interpret part of the meaning of Christ, noting that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” This same attitude toward the scriptures might be emulated by us. We read them for our instruction, to be formed in faith. This has little to do with views of the Bible as inerrant and infallible. Paul’s interpretive method is more pragmatic and open-ended.

Whatever the specific controversy – food or no food, ritually pure days or no – God is a God of steadfastness and encouragement whose hope is for God’s people to live in harmony with one another. It is in joining voices together that we most glorify God. If the glory of God is a human person fully formed (Irenaeus, an early Christian theologian), perhaps the glory of God is also human community living in harmony. We get to this by welcoming one another, welcome others as we have been welcomed in Christ. Paul searches the Hebrew scriptures to find texts that paint a vision of the human community united across typical divides – in this case, Jew and Gentile. Paul uses another benedictory phrase to end this section of his letter. The words are beautiful and could be a prayer for our lives and our church. May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. For all his ability to look at the dark and difficult side of the world and human life, Paul is joyfully hopeful and sees joy, hope and peace at the center of the Christian faith.

Romans 15:14-33: Remember, Paul has never visited this church. Here he offers kind words to the recipients of his letter – telling them that he is sure they are filled with goodness, and have the knowledge to instruct each other. This may be seen as Paul appealing to their own good sense. He tells them that what he has written is really a reminder of what they already know, even if he has written boldly. Paul claims that he writes boldly, in part, because of the way the Spirit of God continues to work in his life to reach out to Gentiles. He has focused his work on sharing the gospel in places where it has not been shared, and claims that this is part of the reason he has not yet been to Rome. Paul goes on to share his hopes and itinerary. Paul asks for their prayers and wished them God’s peace.

Romans 16

Romans 16:1-16: This final chapter is comprised primarily of greetings to Paul’s friends and coworkers now in Rome. “There are Jewish, Greek and Latin names, the majority of which are slaves or freed-persons, although some are nobility” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). There are women and men mentioned among these leaders in the early Christian movement.

Romans 16:17-20: In the midst of sharing greetings with trusted friends and colleagues in the work of ministry, Paul offers a warning against those who might come teaching, but offer teaching that leads the church away from God, not toward the God of Jesus Christ. Such teaching has as its purpose dissension and offense, and those who offer it seek to enhance only themselves. Paul is confident in God’s triumph over evil.

Romans 16:21-27: Paul now continues with names, this time persons who are with him who send their greeting to Rome. He ends the letter with a long doxological statement. It is a statement of trust in a wise God who is able to strengthen people in their faith. As we read through the New Testament, may this wise God strengthen us in faith, hope and love.